The greatest subsidy in art is the sacrifice of the artist.
Singing is fun. Singing makes us happy. This happiness can be shared with those who listen. The erupting of this shared happiness in thunderous applause is confirmation for the singer. But not only that! Happiness is prolonged and amplified, applause becomes love. The love for the audience is a real, deep feeling of gratitude for its appreciation and affection. Singing makes us happy. Singing is addicting. (Guest commentry by Maris Morgentau)
Ars gratia artis?
Those who dedicate their life to singing want to turn their vocation into a profession. First comes private singing lessons, then years of study. If the artist has been well trained, an experienced singer may accept them as a student, for a fee of course. If the experienced singer is a good teacher, this can be a wise investment. But even if the teacher doesn’t impart anything important to the singer, it can pay off to have a teacher with a big name. Often the artistic administrations of theaters (future employers of the singer) are not musicians themselves; they come from acting, dramaturgy, directing. Therefore having a well-known teacher on a singer’s résumé can open doors, where having a relatively unknown teacher valued by musicians may have failed.
A voice can only be successful in this profession if people instantly associate it with the singer’s name. Singers must carry their own names into the world. For that, there are countless singing competitions. If the singer makes it into a top competition, travel expenses and accommodation are provided, and there is an allowance — often more symbolic than practical. Smaller competitions, on the other hand, cost a lot of money. Participation fees, travel, accommodation, and coachings must all be financed by the participant. Quite a few former singers have found holding their own competitions to be a lucrative source of income at the end of their active careers.
But even big-name competitions won’t protect inexperienced young singers from paying dearly, if they “buy” a spot and then find themselves merely cannon fodder in a corrupt competition. Sometimes technically good and talented singers are sorted out in non-public preliminary rounds so that they don’t make the organizer’s intended winners look bad. The jury will include friends and acquaintances of the competition organizer. In extreme cases there are even representatives of opera houses, who may have already concluded employment contracts with the future winners. The newly hired singers might be good, but still largely unknown to the public. So, after making a contract favorable to the theater, the next step is to send the unknown singer to a competition and sit on its panel. Ennobled by one of the many prizes (or at least participation in the final round), the theater can celebrate their new acquisition at home, patting themselves on the back for discovering a new young talent. Those chosen to receive this treatment have a big advantage over their competitors, whose path into the public eye will require more effort.
The competition is huge.
The singer then applies to an agency. If the agency takes interest in the singer’s submitted materials, they are invited to audition. The singer pays for travel expenses, accommodation, meals, coachings, and sometimes a pianist fee for the audition. If the singer is accepted into the agency, the agent will inform the singer of suitable job offers. Once the singer has confirmed interest, the agent will submit their materials to the employer, who, if also interested, will invite the singer to audition; and the singer must once again practice with coaches, travel, and find accommodations at their own expense. All to sing for a few minutes in front of an audition panel.
The competition is huge. During the audition, the singer might receive criticism (usually subjective and occasionally hurtful), or there is just a “thank you” without comment. If the singer had an early time-slot in the often multi-day auditions, anxious waiting follows, which in most cases ends with a rejection letter, and sometimes well-intentioned “feedback“.
If the singer gets hired, it is usually first as an „apprentice“ in an opera studio. The singer can count himself very lucky to sing small roles in mainstage productions for a paying audience. Very few get even a leading role. The wage for this is far below the legal minimum wage in Germany, so the singer must be enrolled as a student. After the opera studio comes yet another search for an ensemble position, which is the most desired permanent position at a German opera house. The wages for a beginner’s contract will be at the lowest end of union tariffs. Of course, the agent receives his share. Years of graduation, countless private lessons with famous singers, many competitions — a few lost, some won — bring the singer roughly the average salary of a supermarket cashier.
At first, the singer does not feel discouraged. Anyone who makes singing their profession will very soon encounter those who would take advantage of their addiction. Every singer has performed for free. Even large orchestras sometimes only offer a meager expense allowance for concerts. For the upcoming performance, the singer will buy scores, and pay for coachings. After travel expenses, accommodation and meals, there remains only pitiful pocket money that must be taxed. Singing is, after all, a profession. A permanent ensemble position with social security benefits is therefore a step forward, no matter how low the pay.
Employment contracts are usually negotiated for the duration of one or two years. Each year, the artists worry about their continued employment, and hope for a salary increase, however small. If the theater’s artistic administration changes, employment can end abruptly, laying to waste years of apparent security. A singer cannot just concentrate on doing their job, the next audition must always be in the back of their mind. They save for the inevitable move, pay for sound and video recordings. The joy of music is always accompanied by the dissonant need to provide evidence of one’s own artistry.
Harsh words can herald the end.
Many orchestras categorically decline singers permission to record sound and video. Others consent to the recording, but prohibit publication. Thus, aside from the joy of making music and the audience’s love, the singer often only has the report from a critic or culture blogger to commemorate their performance. A good review can boost the singer’s name and increase their market value. Ideally, this might even result in an interview.
There is a paradoxical situation in culture: the professional critic, paid by an established medium, be it special interest magazine, newspaper, radio or television, enjoys the biggest reputation of all. His word has the most weight. Productions are staged for him, not for the audience. These authors are often professional journalists with no musical or cultural background. The truest reviews reflect the real audience experience, and are written by the amateur. In many blogs and online magazines, people who truly love art write with enthusiasm, and with an expertise that has grown over decades. Like the singers, who financially subsidize their own art, volunteer authors work unpaid and out of love. The reward for this is recognition, a free ticket now and then, and personal contact with artists.
The singer, in turn, is afraid of the critic. His word has power. A single adjective can turn an otherwise neutral or even good review into an emotional pitfall. More serious than wounded pride and self-doubt, however, are consequences for the career. Harsh words can herald the end. But the singer also appreciates and needs the critic, and hopes for his presence in the audience. The love of music unites, and if a critic has shown a particular musical affinity, his recognition is a landmark that shows the singer that they are on the right path. If the reviewer praises the singer, this can mark the ascent of a successful career.
For every sincere, noble, helpful companion, there are dozens who will take advantage of the singer at every point in their career. It is the need to sing that makes it possible to foist alms upon singers. It is the addiction that makes the singer ignore the injustice.
In spite of the COVID-19 lockdown, singers have not fallen silent. They are still singing, but quietly so as not to disturb their neighbors, who are at home during the pandemic. Happy is the singer who can accompany themselves on the piano. For others, apps like Accompanist are booming, allowing them to sing their arias and recitatives regardless of the pitiful sound.
Despite the distance, artists have moved closer together. They talk online, exchange ideas, try not to give up on art. And every day there are new reports about fraudsters and charlatans pulling the money out of artists’ pockets. Formerly glorious institutions are showing their true, anomic faces. Auditions and competitions, now held online due to the pandemic, can no longer hide the fact that they have always eviscerated the poorest and weakest in the industry. These institutions can no longer use extravagant luxuries, such as first class travel and accommodation for the jury, as an excuse for their exorbitant fees. The inevitable publicity of online events has exposed long-established patterns of exploitation. Singers are shocked. Disillusioned, they look at their shattered dreams.
Those who are old, are afraid.
Artists dedicate their lives to the wonderful, sharable moments of collective experience. Very few singers are financially successful in the long run, and despite enduring these sacrifices, sooner or later most of them give up the art. In the pandemic, performance is banished to the cold anonymity of the online world. There is no shared experience. Thus, the artist lacks the most important reward, their most important motivation.
Prematurely, their eyes are opened to the hard fact that there is no social security. Artists realize that they have never received an adequate reward for their sacrifices of time, money, and family. Those who are young enough are already changing careers or deliberating it. With this, comes a premonition that the lost decades will mean a miserable pension. Those who are old, are afraid.
All that is left is hope, that artists with the emotional stamina and financial fortitude will not give up their art, but will emerge from the pandemic with a renewed strength to cultivate a reformed cultural landscape. Artists should not be obliged to be grateful for the subventions they receive; they create moments of bliss, both out of love for their audience, and for that audience’s love. When artists are in need, they deserve the remembrance of this love and happiness from their community and from society.
The greatest subsidy in art is the sacrifice of the artist.
- Adapted from: “Ars gratia artis?” by Maris Morgentau, as published in DAS OPERNMAGAZIN, 14 February 2021
- Illustration © Stefan Romero Grieser
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